On Good Sports And Poor Ones

Athletes and events were spotlighted in Spain - largely to their credit, but occasionally not

GOODBYE, Barcelona, and thanks for a dazzling Olympics. Before leaving, though, here are some thoughts and impressions that have accumulated during 16 days of Games-watching:

* Even if the decathlon weren't the world's best all-around test of athleticism, which it surely is, one would still have to admire the way it unifies competitors. Before the last of the 10 events in Barcelona, the 1,500-meter run, the athletes mingled at the starting line, shaking hands, patting each other on the back, and generally encouraging each other. In a gracious gesture, Czechoslovakian Robert Zmelic, the new champion, insisted that his fellow medalists - Spaniard Antonio Penalver (silver) and A merican Dave Johnson (bronze) - join him on the victory lap.

* Despite the mopish way in which some touted American athletes accepted their disappointing Olympic results, there were class acts, too. World-champion boxer Eric Griffin was exemplary in accepting a highly questionable early-round defeat, and swimmer Matt Biondi, who was upstaged even while joining Mark Spitz with 11 career medals, said modestly at one point, "You'd love to be a super hero all your life, but today my cape came off."

* The Olympics not only transformed the city of Barcelona, it brought crackling new energy to the host country's lackluster athletic program. In Seoul, Spain won just four medals, including one gold. Here, responding to the home crowd and some financial incentives, they won 13 golds (plus 5 silver and 2 bronze), compared with only four golds in all previous Olympics.

* Commercialism is oozing through every pore of the Olympics, an inevitable development given the growing costs of putting on the Games and fielding national teams. Even Cuba, with its old-style state-supported system, has begun searching for corporate backing. What Olympic officials must guard against are instances of excessive, disruptive, and tacky commercialism, such as the British ad that converts a can of lager into the Olympic torch.

* While basketball may be the headliner among Olympic team sports, volleyball (another Massachusetts invention) continues to be a great hit at the Games. There is much to recommend it - plenty of action, a nice balance of finesse and power, interesting strategy, wonderful teamwork, plus it's a noncontact sport in which the only real collisions occur when players dive on the floor to retrieve opponents' high-velocity spikes. It is simple, and easy to understand - even the uninitiated spectator can enjoy i t.

* Say what you will about the United States men's basketball team, it managed to whip everybody soundly without antagonizing anyone. The US players seemed to enjoy their ambassadorial duties, especially Magic Johnson, who basked in the role. Whether many members of this Dream Team return in '96 remains to be seen, but the sense of mission and history that surrounded this group won't be repeated.

* Tennis, a sport that already has an ample number of showcases (its Grand Slam tournaments and Davis and Federation Cup team championships) seems artificially grafted onto the Olympics. Tennis comes across as a minor attraction among the more traditional Olympic sports, a situation that does little to enhance tennis's already well-established international image.

* Perhaps no athlete in Barcelona experienced both the highs and lows of Olympic competition more clearly than American sprinter Gail Devers. She was the surprise winner in the 100 meters, a triumph made even more special given the near-amputation of both feet several years earlier. The flip side came in the 100-meter hurdles, her best event, where she was favored.

Devers led comfortably, too, but tripped going over the last hurdle, fell to the track, and half-crawled, half-dove across the finish line as a wave of runners surged past her. She finished fifth.

* The Big Red Machine of these Olympics was the Cuban baseball team, a juggernaut that was nearly as dominating as the US basketball Dream Team. In winning the gold, the Cubans went 9-0 and outscored their opponents 95-16, with 17 home runs.

How would this team fare against the best team the United States could field? "Our best players are in the majors or minors," said US manager Ron Fraser, whose squad of amateurs missed out on a medal (Taiwan and Japan finished second and third, respectively). "I don't think there'll ever be a Dream Team in baseball."

As long as the major league season conflicts with the Olympics, Fraser's probably right. But that could change if Sydney were awarded the Games in the year 2000. In 1956, the Melbourne Olympics were held in late November and early December.

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